King Faisal ibn Abd al Aziz ibn Saud of Saudi Arabia (1904-1975) was the most prominent Arab leader in the early 1970s. He participated for more than a half century in the creation of modern Saudi Arabia and, as king, was known for his conservative Islamic policies and his staunch anti-Communism.
Faisal was born in Riyadh in 1904, the son of Abd al-Aziz ibn Saud, founder of Saudi Arabia. His mother, Tarfa, a member of the leading religious family of the Al al-Shaikh, died when he was quite young, and he was raised by his maternal grandfather, who taught him the Koran and the principles of the Islamic religion, an education which left an impact on him for the remainder of his life.
Faisal gradually assumed state responsibilities, starting at the age of 13 as a soldier in his father's army. At the age of 18 he became commander of the Saudi army in Asir (south-west Arabia), successfully leading the Saudi military campaigns which brought the Hijaz into the kingdom (1925). His father selected him as early as the age of 15 for diplomatic missions abroad, and later he became the first Saudi foreign minister in 1930. In 1935 King ibn Saud gave his two most promising sons permanent positions in the state. Prince Saud, who was two years older than Faisal, was made viceroy of Najd, in the center of the kingdom, and Faisal, viceroy of the Hijaz on the Red Sea.
In 1953 King ibn Saud designated his older son, Saud, as crown prince. After the death of the king in November 1953 and the accession of Saud, the contrast in character and personality between the two brothers became evident. While Saud was flamboyant and extravagant in his spending, Faisal was frugal, reserved, and efficient. Faisal expressed his displeasure at Saud's ineffective administration by repeated withdrawals from politics.
By 1958 Saud's weaknesses as a king were evident. He had brought discord to the government by his profligacy, his inability to develop an effective bureaucracy, his continued reliance on personal advisers, and his failure to mobilize and direct for national development the massive wealth accruing to the country from oil resources.
Interference by senior members of the royal family led to a palace coup in April 1958 in which Faisal was named prime minister with all executive powers. Between 1958 and 1964 King Saud twice tried to regain his lost powers, but failed. Finally, on November 2, 1964, King Saud was forced to abdicate in favor of Faisal, who became king.
When Faisal assumed office as king, Saudi Arabia was facing major internal and external challenges. Externally, a hostile relationship with Egypt under Gamal Abdul Nasser and a civil war in neighboring Yemen had forced Saudi Arabia to turn away from its traditional isolation. In 1962 a military coup had removed the monarch in Northern Yemen, which proclaimed itself a republic. Saudi Arabia supported the monarch; Egypt supported the republicans.
Internally, King Faisal continued a policy of economic and social reform, which he had already begun as prime minister. He introduced sound fiscal administration and a policy of austerity to counter the extravagance and corruption which had characterized his brother's rule. His social reforms were equally significant. In 1962 he abolished slavery, and his wife, Iffat, made a substantial contribution to women's education. He encouraged public education through the press, radio, and television, which, however, remained under strict government control. He introduced important development projects in agriculture and industry and improved the country's infrastructure.
It was on the international scene that Faisal gained much of his reputation as a leader, especially through his rivalry with Egyptian president Nasser. Faisal opposed Nasser's involvement in the war in Yemen and his hostile relations with the United States. As a countermeasure Faisal attempted to construct an anti-Communist "Islamic Front" to contain the spread of Nasser's Arab nationalism and socialism.
It was not until the Khartoum conference of August 1967, in the wake of the Arab-Israeli (Six Day) War, that Faisal and Nasser met and came to an agreement which led to the withdrawal of Egyptian troops from Yemen. The Egyptian (and Arab) defeat in 1967, the death of Nasser in 1970, and the tilt of President Anwar Sadat of Egypt toward the West all weakened Egypt's influence in Arab affairs. Gradually Faisal replaced Nasser as the most prominent leader in the Arab world and the moderator of Arab disputes.
King Faisal established strong ties with the West, making his country the strongest Arab ally of the United States. He refused any political ties with the Soviet Union and other Communist bloc countries, professing to see a complete incompatibility between Communism and Islam.
However, Faisal faced some internal opposition. Plots against the regime involving Saudi military officers and civilians, and some Yemenis, surfaced in 1966, 1969, and 1974. Terms of imprisonment and death sentences were pronounced against the perpetrators.
Faisal was criticized for his pro-American foreign policy, his conservative Islamic ideology, and the slowness of his reforms. He was finally the victim of a successful assassination attempt. On March 25, 1975, he was murdered by one of his nephews. There was no public trial and hence the real motives of the assassin remain obscure. However, they are believed to lie in a long-standing family feud and the young prince's dislike of policies he considered too conservative.
Additional information on Faisal can be found in David Holden and Richard Johns, The House of Saud: the Rise of the Most Powerful Dynasty in the Arab World (1981); Gerald de Gaury, Faisal, King of Saudi Arabia (1966); Alexander Bligh, From Prince to King, Royal Succession in the House of Saud in the Twentieth Century (1984); and Willard A. Beling, King Faisal and the Modernization of Saudi Arabia (London, 1980). □